‘Bodies have been blown out of graves’ - a week in the life of a First World War soldier

A route march between Hatfield and St Albans

Letters from First World War soldiers were published in the Bishops Hatfield Parish Magazine. - Credit: Archant

Between January 1915 and September 1916, Bishops Hatfield Parish Magazine gave those on the Home Front an insight into life in the trenches when they published letters from soldiers in the Hertfordshire Regiment. 

Here’s what a week in the life of a World War One soldier from Hatfield was like, as revealed by those letters. 

The entry from Friday, January 8, 1915 comes from an upbeat Sergeant Louis Wren, as he tells his family he is getting the parcels they said.

“We have been out of the trenches for a few days and going in again shortly,” he wrote. 

“We are having a lot of rain which makes it rather rough getting about, but we are used to it now. I am getting parcels you send alright, which come as a very nice change and my mate and I go shares. 

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“You must not worry about me as there are many people much worse off, some with their only son out here.” 

The following day, Saturday, January 9, the regiment moved to a town closer to the frontline, as Henry C Reeves writes in his letter. 

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“We are in a school, and are much more comfortable,” he said. 

“There is scarcely anyone living in the place, as it has been bombarded by the Germans, and much of the houses are smashed up. The church spire is knocked off and fell point downwards and stuck in the ground, and cannot be pulled out. 

“Bodies have been blown out of graves. You ought to see to really believe the damage done.” 

On Monday, January 11, Victor Cecil and the regiment witnessed the shelling of the German, as he wrote: “We had a tremendous show in the bombing line by our guns right over our heads, and we could see a shell bursting over a village.

World War One soldiers

British soldiers marching during the First World War. - Credit: Flickr

“One of our aeroplanes was over the whole time, circling round the enemies' lines regardless of the rifle fire, from which I think he was out of range and anti-aircraft fire which always missed by miles. We could see the white puffs of burning shrapnel. 

“I now hear that we are shelling German billets, but with what effect we do not know.” 

Cecil was looking forward to a rest, adding: “I had 24 hours in the forward trench, during which time I worked most of the time and got about half an hour’s sleep. 

“In a week’s time, the company goes back to rest, which is a blessed relief to look forward to.” 

Wednesday, January 13, brought sad news for the company. 

“We are having a short rest again which makes a very nice change after being closed to the firing line,” wrote Sergeant Louis Wren. 

“I am very sorry to say we have lost our commanding officer the other night, also a sergeant and corporal in the company were wounded, they were some good pals too. My mate gets the Parish Magazine so I see some of the news.” 

The next day, Thursday, January 14, Victor Cecil revealed what it was like coming under attack from German shells having moved into a French suburb. 

“This is just an ordinary French suburb, in normal times a little sleepy but very industrial. It now teems with British soldiery,” he wrote. 

“It has been in German hands, but they behaved very well and treated all the inhabitants well, and during the fighting which drove the Germans out it escaped shelling, and now the firing line is, I suppose, about three miles as the crow flies. 

“We are therefore, within the range of German guns, but they have not bothered us yet. They have mostly confined their efforts to searching for our guns which evidently worry them a great deal. I don’t think they have found them at all, but the trouble is that occasionally the searching shells come a little close to the infantry not in the trenches. 

“The actual damage this kind of shell does is infinitesimal, and I have only heard of one man being killed by it, but it’s trying when you are resting to hear a noise like tearing canvas which ends up with a crash, for you can hear them coming a long way off even when they pitch a quarter of a mile away. 

“Now that the ground is soft their effect is very local, just about 6ft across in the ground and a lot of stuff thrown into the air. One landed under Palk’s bedroom window, only three yards away, and only cracked one pane of glass.” 

After September 1916, the letters stopped being published owing to the increasing number of casualties, with Hatfield losing 58 soldiers between that period – 40 per cent of the total loses.

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